Three For One Dollar

Written by: Lemuel Teo (Photo by: Ronald Lim)

The value of a personal connection outweighs the cost of buying tissue packets

I absolutely abhor the rush-hour crowd: sticky, warm bodies pushing past one another; everybody walking determinedly ahead, paths criss-crossing. This was exactly how it was one warm October evening.

I was coming back from a long day in school and had to run some errands in Tampines before heading home for dinner. Mid-way, I heard a voice rising above the noise of shuffling shoes, “Tissue…Three for one dollar…” Putting the voice to the face, I saw a frail hand thrusting three packets of tissue — bundled together by a rubber band — into the way of the hasty throng.

I remember thinking, “Hmm, she looks really old, probably more than 80 years old. I wonder why she’s here selling tissue and not at home with her grandchildren…Ah, whatever; it’s not like I need the tissue packets anyway…” I walked on, focussed on the errand I had to complete; I didn’t have time to lose…

Once I was done, I decided that it would be a good idea to treat myself to something nice: after all, I had a tiring school day and I had just completed a bothersome errand. “I deserved it,” I thought. A cup of KOI milk tea sounded like the perfect pick-me-up. Expectantly, I made my way to the stall and stood in front of KOI’s impressive menu board, mouth agape at the endless possibilities. Then it hit me: each drink cost about $3.

I thought about the tissue auntie I hurriedly walked past just now — why was I so unwilling to part with $1 for tissue, yet so eager to spend three times that amount on a cup of milk tea? Why did I refuse to meet someone else’s need and prioritise my own enjoyment? Was there something fundamentally wrong with my value system?

Living in Singapore, we are bound to come across these people (or street vendors, as I would call them) — the uncle playing the erhu, the blind auntie selling packets of tissue, and the ex-offender selling keychains. I’ve always struggled with whether I should give money to them or buy the goods they are selling. This line of business is not sustainable, I would think; they should find “better” jobs, and giving to them would only encourage them to stay in this “industry.” Besides, I have no clue where the money that they’ve pocketed goes to. It might feed some addiction, be spent unwisely, or given over to cover the cost price of their goods. I simply would not have control over my money.

It says in Matthew 5:42, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (NIV). Applying this verse into daily life is challenging. Jesus did not seem to place a limit on how much one should give to the poor; whoever asks for whatever, give. This verse has forced me, time and again, to confront my own humanity. I find it hard to live out this verse in its full measure. This verse may not be limited to our finances, but I would like to focus on sharing some thoughts on giving money to street vendors.

Whose money is in your wallet?

Growing up in church, I learnt that God is the ultimate provider of all that I possess (1 Timothy 6:17 NLT); even in tithing, I am giving back to God as a token of my gratitude. It follows that all the money in my wallet belongs to God, and I am merely a steward of what He has given me. I have found it easy to slip into self-entitlement, thinking that all my money is mine, when it isn’t really.

It is biblical to leave aside a portion of our earnings — the fruits of our labour — for the poor and the foreigners living among us (Leviticus 19:9–10 NLT). We are commanded to be open-handed toward our neighbours who are poor and needy (Deuteronomy 15:11 NIV). God requires of us to use our money to bless those in need.

We are to steward our money in such a way that it brings glory to the Father — both in the prudence of our spending and the generosity of our giving. When we understand that the money we have does not belong to us, but to God, it becomes easier to divert His financial providence to those who need it more than us.

Let love be the motivation

Oftentimes, when I do give to street vendors, I admit that I’d do so out of a slight annoyance: “Can this tissue uncle stop pestering me to buy tissue while I’m having my bak chor mee for supper?” Other times, I do so out of sympathy or compassion: “this blind busker looks so poor thing, I should give him some money”. Either way, they get my money, and I feel like I’ve done a good deed.

What moves me to those “good deeds”? Compassion. It is a “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”; the motivation for action in response to suffering. Compassion focuses on the person’s external circumstance: age, mobility, how “poor thing” the person looks, etc.

Love, on the other hand, takes into account the person’s intrinsic qualities, such as their value and potential. Love acknowledges the value of a person as one who is wonderfully and fearfully made by God, and recognises his or her potential to live a fruitful life.

It is easy to observe someone’s external circumstance, but it requires the Holy Spirit’s input to fully appreciate their intrinsic qualities. Jesus definitely had a heart of compassion, but it was eyes of love that helped Him see beyond the physical and delve into their emotional, psychological, and spiritual needs. He paid more attention to the person’s wholeness than his immediate physical healing. (See more here & here.)

Drawing upon God’s love for me, I am learning how to sow into a street vendor’s value and potential whenever I give; I am learning how to look beyond the physical and see, with eyes of faith, how my giving will bless his or her soul. This is especially hard when (trying to refuse) buying keychains from an ex-offender. I carry a slight suspicion of what use my money will be put to. I am still on this journey of learning to give into potential; I don’t claim to have finished it.

Get personal

A friend once recounted an incident when he stopped to ask a tissue auntie how things were that day, and she replied, “Wah, ah boy, you are the first one today to ask me how I am leh…” It struck him how, throughout the day, no one paused to have a chat with her. Was she just another street vendor that people can nonchalantly walk pass? Many times, these street vendors are viewed more as hurdles in our way, than lives with which we have the opportunity to spread God’s love.

Admittedly, I am also guilty of disregarding street vendors: it is so much more convenient to ignore them than to stop for a moment. “They just want my money; I don’t have change to spare. They are doing a legitimate business selling keychains; it is fair that I refuse to be a customer.” I sometimes forget that they, too, are humans needing a personal connection. I know of another friend who would stop by to chat with the harmonica uncle at her MRT station every so often. Eventually, they became friends. One day, she plucked up the courage to pray for a particular ailment he was having, and he was grateful. Her story greatly encouraged my heart. It is in us loving one another in a personal manner that God’s love is made complete in us (1 John 4:12 NIV).

Ultimately, the Lord says in His Word that we “should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others” (1 Timothy 6:18 NLT). “There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with [others] in need… Do not be hard-hearted or tightfisted toward them” (Deuteronomy 15:11, 7 NLT). When we encounter street vendors, may we ever be soft-hearted in our love for them and “loose-fisted” with our money. After all, wouldn’t you agree that 3 tissue packets for $1 is a more worthy investment than $3 for 1 cup of milk tea?

LEMUEL loves Hainanese chicken rice, especially the roasted variety. Cycling along the eastern coast of Singapore while watching the sun set rejuvenates his soul. He is dedicated to restoring and building lives to be Godly pillars of strength in their communities. Follow him @lemuelteo.


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